Recently, I was listening to a reissue of Sounds of Liberation's self-titled 1972 LP, due out on Feb. 16; I have an advance copy for purposes of review (set for print in Signal to Noise, #57). Porter Records has unearthed what was long the province of only the most dedicated collectors. The septet included Dwight James (drums), Khan Jamal (vibraphone), Byard Lancaster (alto sax), Rashid Salim (conga), Monnette Sudler (electric guitar), Omar Hill (percussion), and Billy Mills (electric bass). It occurred to me while writing that not only was I unfamiliar with all of these musicians, but I was completely ignorant of the fact that Philadelphia had its own fertile jazz scene in the 1970s. What appealed to me in Sounds of Liberation was the combination of funk and Ayler-like mysticism, so I took the time to find out if its contributors had any other recording history; to my surprise, many of them were quite accomplished players who had led numerous sessions from the seventies on. For those who were less successful or ambitious, well, at least they got to play a bill with Kool & the Gang for the 6th Annual Miss Black America Pageant.
The group had no "leader", but I think the obvious standout is Byard Lancaster. At times my enjoyment was tempered by what I felt to be the band's endlessly repetitive rhythms and chordal patterns, but the altoist's solos always gave me something to look forward to. In my review, I wrote the following: "He flutters gently and trills like a machine-gun, soars over the rest of the group and sings himself hoarse. He is like the bird described by Jules Michelet, so poorly adapted to captivity that he kills himself trying to escape the cage." Greedily I began digging into his solo career, looking for tracks which he graced with his presence. Aside from his usual Philly cohorts, Lancaster has played on classic LPs by Sunny Murray, Burton Greene and Marzette Watts, moving between New York, France, and his hometown. In an excellent interview with Clifford Allen, he spoke of Philadelphia in a spiritual vein reminiscent of his music: "Philadelphia is a tribal city... it is the spiritual capital of the United States and rivals Mecca. The laws of the country and its culture were born there, and we are the root of all culture in the world because we're running the world culture now and the root of America is Philadelphia." Try as he might, he always ended up back home, cutting his records for tiny labels like the now-defunct Vortex and Palm--part of the reason he almost lapsed into total obscurity.
What follows are a few tracks from the Sounds of Liberation release and highlights from Lancaster's discography. As one can see, Porter is doing much to rehabilitate his reputation. The saxman (who also plays flute), born 1942, is still full of restless energy; his website opens with an amusing Nov. 2000 court incident, in which Lancaster was arrested for playing the streets of Philadelphia: something he's been doing practically his whole life.
From Personal Testimony (Concert Artists, 1979; Porter, 2008) -- perhaps my favorite for variety and sheer weirdnessByard Lancaster - Brotherman
From Funny Funky Rib Crib (Palm, 1974; Kindred Spirit, 2008)Byard Lancaster - Dogtown
From Live at Macalester College (Dogtown, 1972; Porter, 2008)Byard Lancaster - Thought
From Exactement (Palm, 1975)Byard Lancaster & Keno Speller - Palm Sunday
From It's Not Up to Us (Vortex, 1968; Water, 2003)Byard Lancaster - Over the Rainbow
Next week I'll be taking a look at some of the group's other members, namely Khan Jamal and Dwight James, so be sure to check back. And feel free to school me on the topic, as what I've written here is truly the extent of my knowledge in this arena.